Ip Man (1893-1972) possessed rare martial arts skills, developed across 5-decades of learning, built from the perspectives of his two masters. But whilst he taught many students in his latter years, their interpretations of his kung fu vary wildly.
This makes it hard to understand what his kung fu was really like. Only by piecing together information from his top students can we start to develop a picture. Across many decades of research, we have learnt from and spoken to many of Ip Man’s key students. The following describes what led to the branching of Wing Chun from its original source and how we can return to the centre. It is based on the video podcast with Barry Pang, available below.
According to tradition, masters of Chinese kung fu did not teach their art to large numbers of students. They passed their knowledge through the generations, carefully selecting ideal students to carry the style on.
Ip Man lived a privileged life through to his middle age. Coming from a wealthy family, he did not have to work and was able to dedicate much of his time to practicing martial arts. He learnt Wing Chun from two masters. Chan-wah Shun taught him as a youth in Fatsan and then Leung Bik as a young man when studying in Hong Kong. For the next four decades Ip Man practiced his art, seldom sharing it with others.
Ip Man’s commercial kung fu school from the 1950’s on was far from traditional. Only Chinese students could study, but access was fairly open.
Becoming a teacher
The Communist takeover brought home some commercial realities for Ip Man. Moving from his home in Fatsan to Hong Kong in 1950, he needed to earn a living for the first time. Martial arts was the one skill he had mastered, so this was the obvious choice for making an income. However, teaching was a new concept for him and the need for cash was growing with each day. The transition was far from easy.
Aged in his 50’s, Ip Man had never formally taught before, nor did he have a structured program of learning ready for teaching Wing Chun. He also had a lot of work to do in order to recall the intricacies of techniques not practiced in years. Over the next 20 years, his evolving school attracted many students. It is said that he spoke in riddles, often agreeing with conflicting statements on how to practice certain techniques. For example, one student would ask if the Bong Sao should be loose. Another would ask if it should tense. To both he would simply say “Yes”.
Where it came to demonstrations, Ip Man would often show a technique at full speed and without explanation. He would demonstrate once and then walk away. In one famous instance, a visitor wanting to become a student asked to see his Wooden Dummy form. Ip Man asked for 3-thousand Hong Kong dollars. Taking the cash, he demonstrated the form (once) and left. The student then asked when he would start teaching it to him. The reply was that teaching wasn’t part of the deal. He’d have to pay again to learn more.
Across 20 years of teaching there were multiple generations of students. During this time Ip Man improved and reorganised the Wing Chun system to bring the most important elements to the fore. In some instances he added movements to forms, or rearranged sequences. This evolution meant that each generation of students saw different points of emphasis and explanations.
There was a batch of students, in particular Wong Shun Leung, William Cheung and Bruce Lee that received some special attention from the grandmaster. They were regularly competing in challenge matches against other styles. Recognising that the reputation of Wing Chun needed to be upheld, Ip Man made sure that they had the necessary training to stand up against the highest level of pressure. For most students, sparring was a foreign concept. It was not part of the curriculum at kung fu schools in Hong Kong.
In summary, the student experience was not consistent and the lessons often unclear. This meant that interpretation was required. The result was that Ip Man’s direct students went on to emphasise different things in their own teaching. Whilst core, surface-level features were the same, the details and application were often different. In a sophisticated art like Wing Chun, details matter and they have a direct influence on the extent to which the system works as a whole. Variations in the details have played out in two ways: How specific techniques are taught and the extent to which certain aspects of training are emphasised (or not).
Bringing it back together
Building on the 1970s training under Wong Shun Leung, Barry Pang Kung Fu has sought to deepen the understanding of what Ip Man kung fu was really like. This led to multiple knowledge tours into Hong Kong and mainland China, meeting with several key students including Tsui Sheung Tin, Lo Man Kam, Leung Ting, Ip Chun and also visiting Pan Nam Sifu in Fatsan. In addition, the long-standing relationship with Grandmaster William Cheung, who is also based in Melbourne Australia, further added to this understanding.
These investigations cut across the three generations of Ip Man’s students that studied from 1950 to 1972. The early group, including Tsui Sheung Tin, that were there at the beginning. The middle group that included Wong Shun Leung, that had the reputation for competing in challenge matches. And the final group that included Ip Man’s sons, for whom the famous Ip Man demonstration videos were made. The trips included attending seminars, participating in training workshops and holding in-depth discussions on how Ip Man practiced his kung fu.
Through this research, the training and techniques that we believe sat at the core of Ip Man’s practice of Wing Chun were identified. These include his use of footwork and pivoting to overcome larger opponents, the emphasis on a strong base and coordination of the whole body to generate power through loose, fast hands. Our hope is to preserve these and other insights into Ip Man kung fu for the generations of students that follow.
Watch/listen to the full talk
Article: Written by R Zandbergs. Created from Barry Pang’s seminars.
Main photo: Ip Man circa 1950